This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are a few things that are imperative to us thriving as human beings. The pyramid, which lays the groundwork for the theory, states that human beings have an order of needs that need to be met, starting from the most basic at the bottom, such as air, water, food, and shelter. They get more complex further up, eventually culminating in self-actualisation, or the desire to become the most we can be.
A couple rungs down the 6-step ladder, is the need for “love and belonging.” The desire for friendship, intimacy, connection, and affection is right smack in the middle of the list, just two away from the need for air, water, food, and shelter, so Maslow must think it’s pretty important.
In China, though, a recent trend is pointing to a reshuffling of this hierarchy. More and more single women find themselves treating the need for love and belonging as a commodity, upending the pyramid, and challenging conventional and conservative views of gender roles.
The trend in question refers to a growing number of single Chinese women who recruit the services of men online to pretend to be their boyfriend. Not in a sleazy, soliciting sex kinda way. More like a wake-up-call, sing me to sleep, you look great (heart eyes emoji) type approach.
The trend picked up steam after advertisements for virtual boyfriends appeared on popular e-commerce websites like Taobao and messaging apps like WeChat. The services offered by said virtual boyfriends include basic ones like chatting via text, but also go as far daily calls for clients on retainer.
"If someone is willing to keep me company and chat, I'm pretty willing to spend money," a woman identified only as Robin told AFP.
Robin, who declined to give her real name, has spent more than 1,000 yuan (US$150) on calls and texts from her virtual boyfriend.
The demand for these cyber sweethearts could be attributed to Chinese women prioritising careers over their desire for relationships and having a family. Whether by personal preference or by policy, women in China seem to be coming up short in the search for companionship.
In the Chinese workforce, there has been a disturbing practice where women, as part of their employment contracts, must agree to put aside “getting pregnant” for up to two years or risk losing their jobs without compensation. Gendered policies like this are illegal and infringe on the workplace rights of women, but are pervasive due to a rising tide that is slowly shifting attitudes towards more traditional and conventional gender roles.
In the wake of the abolishment of Chinas one-child policy in 2016, policymakers are now campaigning for women to be more involved in domestic duties, as the ageing country hopes for a baby boom.
In 2012, the government started to enforce labour laws which gave women maternity leave for up to 14 weeks but paternity leave of only 2 weeks. This skewed hiring habits further, as employers who have productivity in mind preferred men who didn’t need to take long breaks.
This regression has resulted in a marked disparity. Societal pressure and the need to postpone personal gratification for the needs of employers and corporations are just one item in a long list of battles that women in China have to fight. Where once China ranked on the higher side of the global gender gap index, the country now takes a back seat.
In The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 published by the World Economic Forum, China was ranked 103 out of 149 countries when it came to overall gender parity. A stark contrast from 2008, when the country ranked 57th out of 139 countries.
Chinese parents also still prefer having boys over girls, a pertinent issue in many developing countries. The belief is that a male child, taking on conventional gender roles, will one day grow up and be able to support the household as the breadwinner and take care of his elderly parents.
The trend of virtual boyfriends is just another indication that there is a larger, more prevalent problem that needs to be addressed. With an ageing population and a government that preaches equality, but turns a blind eye to practices of discrimination, it is yet unknown what other symptoms will manifest from China’s gender inequality problem.